Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Guests Review - DC's Manhunter Saga, Part One

Doug: We have a wonderful treat for our readers this week. One of the Bronze Age series long-discussed around here and held in quite high regard by many of our readers is the Manhunter sage by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson. Today we'll begin a comprehensive retrospective of the series with a partner review between Mike W. and Edo Bosnar. Both of these fellows are veterans in the guest writer chair, each having reviewed a few comics for our pleasure. I'm sure you'll all enjoy their thoughts and interplay on this subject.

We'll begin today with the first three installments, and conclude right away tomorrow -- who wants to wait? Thanks, guys, for sharing!

Manhunter by Goodwin & Simonson

The Manhunter saga as written/drawn by Goodwin and Simonson originally appeared in six back-up installments in Detective Comics, starting in late 1973 (in Detective #437), and running through most of 1974, with the conclusion, the seventh chapter, done in a full-length Batman story in Detective #443. Another interesting aspect of this story is that it’s one long continuous saga, very unusual for back-up features at the time.

Chapter 1. The Himalayan Incident

The story opens in Katmandu, as Interpol agent Christine St. Clair questions an old man named Haj (who apparently knows everything that goes on in the city) about a mysterious man known as the Manhunter. He confirms that such a man was indeed there, and recounts a tale –which we see in flashbacks – of Manhunter also searching for someone by asking all of the most deadly hardened criminals in Katmandu, and leaving a trail of dead or severely beaten bodies as he goes along. St. Clair shows Haj a photograph of a man named Paul Kirk, asking him if that’s who has been talking about. Haj avoids a direct answer, instead saying that this Kirk fellow may be someone who made his way to a remote and well-protected monastery, where Manhunter then showed up to find the man he was seeking, a Nepalese political agitator in hiding there. He makes short-work of anybody who tries to stop him, and also seems unkillable, at one point even walking around with arrows sticking out of his body. The man in hiding, Dharmata, thinks Manhunter wants to kill him, but he instead ends up saving him from a bunch of “monks” who are actually disguised assassins. One of two shocking reveals at the end of the story is that all of these assassins look just like Manhunter. The other is that ‘Haj’ himself is just Manhunter in disguise.

M.S. Wilson: When I first read this, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard good things (and with guys like Goodwin and Simonson working on it, how could it miss?), but I was surprised at the tone established in this first chapter. It's quite realistic, but it's got a real noirish feel to it, almost pulpy. I like the misdirection--St. Clair unknowingly talking to Manhunter all along and Manhunter saving Dharmata instead of killing him. There's also the mystery angle of why the assassins all look like Manhunter. I was kind of surprised that Manhunter kills his opponents without any (apparent) remorse. I think this story predates the Punisher, but I suspect both were influenced by the Mack Bolan/Executioner books. This is a good first chapter and definitely made me want to keep reading.

EB: I don’t know about the Mack Bolan/Executioner connection, but it’s pretty obvious that Goodwin was influenced by the pulp heroes and also the espionage thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s. And I definitely agree that the story sucks you in right away. In these eight short pages, a very complex tale is set up, as there is the mystery of Manhunter and his past and the fact that, although a hunter himself, he is in turn being hunted (by Interpol and a bunch of assassins who apparently look just like him). At the same time, this is a satisfying, action-packed adventure. Simonson’s art is so perfect here, and the whole thing just looks so cinematic.

M.S. Wilson:  Yeah, Simonson's panel layouts are cool; they could easily work as storyboards for a movie. You're right about the way the story grabs you. I usually don't go for backups because it's hard to get a sense of plot or characters in only a few pages, but here I've already got a good idea of what kind of guy Manhunter is, and a plot that's interesting enough to keep me reading. I suppose the level of violence could be considered another connection to the pulps, as they were quite violent at times; the Shadow used to gun people down left and right.

Chapter 2. The Manhunter File

Agent St. Clair is now at her Interpol office in Zurich. She is going over a file with her boss, Damon Nostrand, trying to convince him to keep the Manhunter investigation active. Again in flashbacks, we learn that Manhunter made his way out of Nepal, at one point arranging passage from India on an old-style fishing boat. However, that was a set-up, as the crew threw a tiger into the hold where he was hiding – and he of course manages to kill it. St. Clair then tells her boss that a certain Paul Kirk showed up in a bank in Zurich to withdraw funds from an account, at which point the bank clerk informs him that Kirk was killed in 1946. However, a fingerprint check shows that it is indeed him. He is then accosted by some thugs who were waiting for him to access the account – and, naturally, Kirk makes short-work of them. St. Clair then points out a number of bizarre incidents throughout the world linked to Manhunter; usually they involve him doing things like foiling the assassination of a wealthy oil baron somewhere in the Middle East or the abduction of a Brazilian genetics researcher. And every time, the perpetrator or perpetrators are dead-ringers for Paul Kirk. St. Clair seems to have convinced Nostrand that the matter is worth an ongoing assignment, and allows her to travel to Marrakech to follow a lead. However, once she leaves his office, he takes her file on Manhunter/Kirk and throws it in his fireplace…

M.S. Wilson: The pace doesn't slow down here, as we get a look at events leading up to the present. They show quite a few flashbacks, but a lot of questions remain unanswered. I still don't know why these clones are attacking people (or if the "main" Manhunter might be a clone as well) and I don't know how Manhunter got from his last known appearance (in 1946) to now without any apparent signs of aging. I like the scenes in the Swiss bank (maybe a nod to The Bourne Identity... was that book out before 1973?), but you'd think Swiss banks would have better security...those thugs were just hanging around waiting for Paul Kirk. I also liked the revelation at the end that Nostrand is part of the conspiracy... it was somewhat predictable, but that's probably just me being jaded by years of spy tropes; I'm sure at the time, it was something of a shock.

EB: According to my trusty, certainly infallible sources (i.e., Wikipedia), the Bourne Identity was published in 1980, so Ludlum totally stole his ideas from Goodwin & Simonson!! Seriously though, I agree that the action keeps coming, even with all of the flashbacks – in fact, even the flashbacks are full of action. The fact that at this point in the story there’s still a lot of stuff left unexplained doesn’t take anything away, I think. There seems to be a perfect balance between action and exposition, and I like how little bits of story are dropped, just to keep you intrigued and wanting to find out more.

M.S. Wilson: Yeah, the pacing is good. I wonder how long Goodwin and Simonson envisioned this going on? According to Archie Goodwin's introduction in my 1984 edition, the series was interrupted when he left DC and went to Warren. DC let him and Simonson finish up the series, but I can't help wondering where it might have gone if it had run for a year or more.

EB: Hey, that’s right – I have that same intro by Goodwin in my book, so I just went back and skimmed through it after seeing your comments. I’d totally forgotten that it was meant to be open-ended initially. If the series had gone on, I think it would still have become a fan favorite and classic given the talent of the creative team.

Chapter 3. The Resurrection of Paul Kirk

In Marrakech, St. Clair follows a trail of bodies (of Paul Kirk doppelgangers) until she comes across a gravely wounded and weakened Manhunter in an alley. He seems to be on the edge of death and can’t even stand up, but he tells St. Clair he just needs “time to heal.” While waiting for more would-be assassins to show up (and they do show up intermittently throughout this chapter), he tells her his story. He confirms that he is indeed the original Paul Kirk, that he was a big-game hunter in the 1930s, and that he actually became a costumed crime-fighter called the Manhunter (the original Simon & Kirby character that appeared in Adventure Comics in the 1940s; some of the stories were reprinted as back-ups in Kirby’s New Gods in the early 1970s). He then tells her he put his skills at the government’s disposal during the war and engaged in clandestine activities that left him a little dead inside. So when he tried to go back to game-hunting after the war, the thrill was gone; in this dispirited state, he got charged by a bull elephant one day and thought he died. But then, 25 years later, after what he thought were some really weird dreams, he woke up. A certain Dr. Mykros greeted him, telling him that he had been cryogenically frozen all that time in a place called the Sanctuary, with memory tapes being fed into his subconscious (keeping him apprised of world events). Mykros informed him that once they mastered the technology, they performed genetic surgery on him, basically transforming him into a physically perfect human being with a super-healing factor (sound familiar?). The “they” by the way, is an organization that calls itself the Council. Mykros said it consists of the world’s ten “top minds” who came together when the first atomic bomb was dropped. They were alarmed that humanity would destroy itself, so they put their knowledge and skills to work to prevent this. Furthermore, they cloned Kirk, making countless duplicates of him to serve as the Council’s ‘enforcement branch’ headed by Kirk himself. Kirk and the clones were then trained by man named Asano Nitobe, the last living master of ninjutsu who was reportedly killed in the Nagasaki bombing, but who was actually rescued by the Council before the blast. Manhunter/Kirk recounts that near the end of this training, Nitobe told him that his first assignment would be to “eliminate” an Interpol officer, something that made him uneasy. At this point, St. Clair’s boss Nostrand shows up and, much to her surprise, tries to shoot them. Manhunter stops him by throwing a knife into his arm, but Nostrand gets away…

M.S. Wilson: The story now gets a bit more complicated (and more like a regular comic book story). I also noticed the "healing factor" stuff; Wolverine made his debut in 1974, didn't he? I'm wondering if his healing ability was inspired by this story...or was "healing factor" a thing in comics before this? I can't think of any references to it offhand. Manhunter's time in deep freeze reminds me of the Winter Soldier. It's nice to see Christine St. Clair blowing away clones as Manhunter heals...she's obviously good at what she does (but what she does isn't very...oh, never mind). I'm not sure why the Council assumed Kirk would go along with their plans willingly...he was a crimefighter in the 40s, after all. I'm glad Nostrand was revealed as a double agent so could have gotten tedious if they'd dragged it out. I'm not sure about this "Council"...I guess Goodwin meant them to be exactly what they said, but years later I think there was a revelation that Paul Kirk (and Dan Richards for that matter) were actually working for the robotic Manhunter cult featured in the Millennium miniseries.

EB: There certainly is a lot of story packed into these 8 pages, isn’t there? It was a little more text heavy than other chapters, but I never found it tiresome – in fact, I just eat this up every time I read it. You raise an interesting point about the enhanced healing factor: was Manhunter indeed the first to have it? Off the top of my head, I can't think of any previous heroes/characters who might have had it, either. As for the Council, I'm guessing they thought Kirk would go along with them because they saw themselves as humanity's saviors (and I guess they figured some guy who was so into righting wrongs that he put on an outlandish costume to fight crime would probably jump at the chance to work with them). As the story progresses, we see that Mykros, and the rest of the Council apparently, have succumbed to their own hubris and are actually quite Machiavellian and diabolical, although all the while they seem convinced of their own righteousness. I don't know about any of that Millennium stuff you referenced, but I find it a tad annoying that someone later decided to insert some retcons – to me, this is such a perfect, complete story and should have been left to stand as it is.

M.S. Wilson: I guess the whole "group of superior people thinks they can run the world better than anyone else but end up as power mad dictators" thing is a bit of a trope too. But back then it hadn't been done to death (yet). I think the retcon about the two Manhunters being recruited by the robot Manhunter cult was first established in Secret Origins #22, but it's been a while since I've read it. I think there was a later reference in the Kate Spencer Manhunter comic about the American government being responsible for the origins of both Manhunters, but I assume that means that the robot Manhunter cult had agents inside the government.

Doug: Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion, friends -- same Manhunter time, same Manhunter channel!


Garett said...

Great gem of a story--thanks for this review guys!! This is my favorite Simonson comic, and it would've been awesome to see a regular series with this creative team on Manhunter. Intriguing character, great compressed art. It seems to me Simonson had less of his stylistic flourishes here and more realism. I read an interview where Simonson said this series made his comic career-- after winning 5 Shazam Awards in '73-'74 (3 for best stories, 2 for best writer for Goodwin, and Simonson tying for best new talent with Jim Starlin), he had no trouble getting hired for more jobs.

Looking forward to tomorrow's post!

Garett said...

Whoops that adds up to 6 Shazam Awards! : )

Redartz said...

Mike and Edo- great review, gentlemen! Fine in- depth look at a masterfully done story. Say, how does the printing of the reprint book you depicted compare to the original backups? I'm trying to decide which version to hunt down...

Anonymous said...

@Redartz: I only have a couple of the original stories (non-sequential, natch), but from what I can tell, the colours on my 1984 edition are sharper, and the overall tone is much darker; it almost looks like it was re-inked...there are a lot more black areas in the reprint than the original. But overall, I'd say the quality is slightly better...I can't see the "pixels" (or ben-day dots or whatever they're called) in my reprint, but I can in the original. I'm not sure about the art quality of Edo's edition, but I'm assuming it's even better than mine, since it was printed 15 years later; Edo can give you a better idea when he chimes in (and he may have all the originals too...I'm not sure).

So, from what I can tell, I'd say get one of the collected editions, unless you really want to read the main Batman stories (most of which were the "haunted mansion/morality play/mysterious series of clues" types of story...not a lot of supervillains at that point in Batman's career).

Mike Wilson

Edo Bosnar said...

Redartz, I can't compare the reprint art with the originals, since I don't have any of the latter, but the art quality in my reprint copy (the 1999 Special Edition) is quite nice - pretty much like the scans from Mike's book that were used for this review. And I second Mike's suggestion: unless you really just have to have the original comics in your hands, getting one of the reprint books is the best way to go. If you shop around online, I think you can often score a copy of either the 1984 or 1999 edition at a pretty low cost (that's how I found my copy). Also, the entire Manhunter saga is included in the recently published Tales of the Batman by Archie Goodwin - I think, if you're a US resident, you can also find pretty reasonably priced copies of that (check the Amazon Marketplace).

Otherwise, I just wanted to say how tickled I am that Doug maintained the red-and-purple color scheme (shades of Magneto!) of our comments that we used while still corresponding with each other...

Anonymous said...

Nice review Edo and Mike! I didn't know much about Manhunter's back story but this does seem intriguing. My first look at Manhunter was in the pages of the Secret Society of Super Villains. Never knew he had a 'healing factor'. Guess Wolvie can't lay claim to be the first superhero to have that. Of course, the Hulk was retconned as having a super healing factor which made Wolverine look like a bleeder!

- Mike 'until Manhunter meets the Shadow' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Martinex1 said...

Wow! Busy day today but glad to see this Manhunter review when I finally tuned in. Thanks for that, Mike and Edo. I've heard so much about this over the years but only have read snippets. I'm curious about the costume design. It seems so outlandish. With as much good press this Manhunter run has received,did it ever evolve into an ongoing? Guess I don't know how it ends so maybe that explains it. Even from the bit of art shared I can see how it had a noir but also a DC feel. Another item to add to my reading list. Nice dual perspective review by the way. Looking forward to the rest.

Edo Bosnar said...

Martinex, yep, that costume is quite frankly outlandish, but it is nonetheless one of my favorite costumes, ever. Simonson just found a way to make it work.
And no, this didn't develop into an ongoing, as you'll see from the conclusion to our review (although, as noted in our comments in this post, it was originally intended to be an open-ended series). This version of Manhunter did make some appearances in Secret Society of Super-villains as Mike from T&T noted (which is where I first saw the character as well), but I forgot how that was explained, given the ending to this story.

spencer said...

One of my all time favs! Thanks for spotlighting it. While everything borrows from something else, I did ,and still do, think this was a strip that inspired a lot of ideas.

Wonder Woman Movie by Brad said...

MANHUNTER was one of the earliest series I loved at the beginning of my collecting comics, and it remains one of the best comic stories I've ever read! Like Jim Aparo, Walt Simonson did full art and his own lettering, and with a crackerjack story like this it creates an immediacy that always leaps off of the page. On longer runs (Iron Man, Hulk) Archie Goodwin's writing is more leisurely, but in a restricted format (his Secret Agent Corrigan and Star Wars newspaper strips) he's one of our best writers, quickly establishing location, uncluttered action, always suspenseful then expertly resolving his plots: nowhere is his skill set put to better use than in MANHUNTER. Goodwin and Simonson create a better landscape in 24 pages than most creators manage to do in 12 full issues, yet, MANHUNTER is better than a model of efficiency - it's emotional in how Paul Kirk, literally, sweats his way through the obstacles thrown at him by The Council. This is why MANHUNTER's conclusion will always resonate, because we breathed every ragged breath with Paul Kirk. MANHUNTER is just brilliant :D

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